tv The Presidency Ronald Reagan Communism Pope John Paul II CSPAN November 17, 2018 12:00pm-12:36pm EST
it was all my god i'm 28 years old, this is it. >> sunday night at 8:00 eastern on c-span q&a. >> next on the presidency. ronald reagan's attorney general talks about his views on communism and his relationship with pope john paul ii at a conference organized by the white house writers group. the program was recorded as part of the hoover institution's video series, uncommon knowledge. series host peter robinson moderates the conversation. it is just over half an hour. >> ronald reagan and pope john paul ii, a partnership that changed the world. today, we are in washington at a conference devoted to that subject. with us today, an eyewitness to the relationship tween president reagan and pope john paul ii, the former attorney general, edwin meese iii.
[applause] welcome to uncommon knowledge. i'm peter robinson, a graduate of yale and the university of california berkeley law school, edwin meese served as foreign affairs secretary for newly elected governor ronald reagan from 1967-1968 and then as chief of staff to the governor from 1969 until governor reagan left office in early 1975. from 1981 to 1985, mr. meese served in the reagan administration as counselor to the president. from 1985 until the end of the administration, he served as the 75th attorney general of the united states. mr. meese now holds an emeritus status as the heritage foundation's ronald reagan chair in public policy and emeritus as a distinguished visiting fellow at the hoover institution. no one knew ronald reagan better, and this is ronald reagan on attorney general
meese. if edwin meese is not a good man, there are no good men. welcome. >> thank you. [applause] >> i have two quotations, both from 1982. one is the story and -- historian arthur slessinger junior. after a visit to moscow. those who think the soviet union's is on the verge of collapse is getting themselves. the second is ronald reagan addressing the british parliament. quotes, in an ironic sense, karl marx was right. we are witnessing a great revolutionary crisis, but the crisis is happening not in the west, but in the soviet union. close quote. how did ronald reagan of missa college in illinois what the great historian arthur
slessinger junior missed? i beg your pardon, how did he see what he missed? >> one of the things is ronald reagan went into the study of communism with an open mind and it was not determined by his ideology, as i suspect mr. slessinger's was misguided by his own ideology. ronald reagan, first of all, most people do not realize ronald reagan was a voracious reader. he had studied the founding. he was well-versed in the constitution. he was well-versed in the bible. he had an enormous repertoire of information he used. the discussion was given this morning about his speech writing. before he would do anything else, before the speech writers would get working, he would give the concept of the speech. later on, he edited based upon
all the things he knew. one of the things he knew was communism. because in the 1940's, when he was president of the screen actors guild, as he called it, his union, the communist party usa was trying to take over the movie industry. they wanted to use it for propaganda, obviously. they were infiltrating the various unions. cameramen unions, state manager union, that's stage manager union, they tried to take over the screen actors guild. ronald reagan literally let all of those unions in defeating the communists. that got him interested in the subject. he read a great deal about it, both domestic communism, communist theory, and also international communism. and so he formed his own ideas by the time he became governor and already was talking about these ideas of, how do we overcome what was then our enemy in the cold war? >> i'm embarrassed to admit this, but the way you put it had never occurred to me before. we listened this morning to the panel talk about what communism
was like. obviously for ronald reagan in hollywood in those days it was not like living in poland. but he had direct experience of them. >> yes he did. even to the point where he would come to work armed because there were threats on his life. >> a man with a plan. let me quote your memoir, with reagan. quote -- reagan was more than simply anti-communist. he was an anti-communist with a game plan. ". ote.lose qu can you explain that? >> he had a strategy. he knew they were vulnerable from an economic standpoint. so much of their national wealth was being put into supporting their military and their aggressiveness around the world. he knew they were economically vulnerable. he also knew he had the strong belief that freedom will overcome oppression.
he knew it is very difficult for any government, even a very oppressive government like the soviets had, to keep their people under wraps for a long. period of time. ultimately, the human spirit would result in people wanting to be free. these were not just russians who happened to have a soviet form of government. these were countries that had been free before they had been taken over by the soviet movement. >> i want to go back to this point because it is so basic. it is the kind of thing that is likely to be forgotten. that is the extent to which ronald reagan, and holding these views and acting on them, stood out. richard nixon, henry kissinger, the order of the day was detente. when gerald ford became president after nixon resigned, he refused to meet alexander solzhenitsyn because of fears of offending the soviet union.
jimmy carter gave a speech at notre dame in which he talked about overcoming our, quote, inordinate fear of communism. and then, this is absolutely the dominant mode of thinking in both parties. nixon, carter, then in 1977, ronald reagan is a former governor, he has not declared for president yet, they are talking about foreign policy, and ronald reagan says to dick allen, would you like to hear my theory of the cold war? my theory is simple. we win and they lose. the question is, what gave him whatever it was, the courage, the insight, how did he so self confidently place himself in opposition to the entire mindset? >> he was not just being facetious as some people accused him of the time.
what he was saying is, i have a strategy which is not just giving in or allowing a moral equivalency between marxism and freedom. it is a matter of knowing their vulnerability, both from an ideological standpoint and from a economic standpoint. it was his feeling that they can be beaten and that freedom can win. in other words, it was a belief in the system that had been the foundation for american thought and political thought since the 1780's. he felt that what we knew in this country, our sense of freedom, ultimately that can overcome even the tyranny of the soviet union. >> you write in "with reagan," you describe the elements of the president's thinking, and you write, "it followed that the united states and the western world should stop retreating before the communist challenge and begin competing in ernest
against the soviets." explain. >> it was an idea of competing in number of ways. it was not to engage in military action. that is the last thing ronald reagan wants to do. or felt it necessary to do. but to compete in terms of economics. to compete in terms of information. to compete in terms of persuasion of people. to support resistance movements in the communist world. to support leaders. in other words, to actually let people around the world know that marxism, leninism, is not ordained and is not going to succeed, whether in fact there can be strong, nonmilitary, but ideological in some , ways striking sense of patriotism, in some ways, faith that there are a number of ways in which to compete with and
ultimately to overcome the communist regime. >> the strategic defense initiative, or sdi. you held the first meetings on that subject in your office in the west wing, and then in an televised address on march 23, 1983, the president announced the initiative. research that might lead to a system that would enable us to destroy incoming ballistic missiles before they could reach their targets. no longer mutually assured destruction, but defense against incoming missiles. how did that fit into the president's game plan? >> ronald reagan always said, this goes back to his days as governor, that a nuclear war could not be won and should never be thought. -- fought. the destruction of any such kind of conflict would be -- would wipe out not just one nation, but perhaps many nations. and so that is why he felt we must be able to do something
better than that. he had met with edward teller, for example. >> the great physicist. >> when he was governor because ed teller was at the university of california. he talked with him and others, and that was why a group of people who had been working on this idea also, that's why we had this meeting in my office with some people who were very interested in this subject. as a result we put together a , conference with the governor, with the president in 1982, with edward teller. that led to his idea being fleshed out into an actual strategy. the next step was to talk with the joint chiefs of staff. within the military there's always a lot of competition for budget dollars. there was resistance in certain areas of the pentagon. but ronald reagan, as he had them develop a strategic plan
for our defense, said, and i want you to also look at the idea of a strategic defense initiative, a ballistic missile defense system. they came back eight months later with their plan. one of the things they said that, as we have looked into it, the joint chiefs believe that the strategic defense initiative, a way of combating nuclear war through missile defense, is not only militarily necessary, but it is also morally necessary. they really gave him the assurance he was on the right track with sdi. if the nations had pursued sdi with the same energy and enthusiasm he gave it during the rest of his term as president, i think today we would have a very robust system already deployed and make us a lot safer in view of what is happening around the world with two nations that now have nuclear capabilities which
were not even contemplated as potential nuclear opponents at that time. >> north korea and -- >> and iran. >> the "new york times" called the strategic defense initiative, i'm not making this up, a pipe dream. prime minister margaret thatcher had doubts about it at the time, but in her memoirs, she wrote, looking back on it, ronald reagan's original decision on sdi was the single most important of his presidency. can you explain what the new york times meant, what they thought they meant, when they referred to sdi as a pipe dream? >> the new york times is often wrong, let's put it that way, charitably. [laughter] [applause] they were so wrapped up in this whole idea of detente and also,
quite frankly not really , believing soviet communism was as much of a threat. they were part of that detente group that felt that even the moral equivalency ideas were not foreign to the new york times. that was why they just had no confidence in it whatsoever. now with margaret thatcher, it was interesting. because basically the whole idea of a hedge against war and the nuclear balance and those kinds of things were something that in europe was very much the basic idea and the basic foundation of the defense system at that time. just as nato was going to be installing potentially nuclear weapons in europe to combat what the soviet union already had there, that concept. one of the things she was worried about as i read the
materials later was she was worried that somehow this would violate or would degrade that sense of nuclear balance that was preventing war in europe. i think the more she learned and as she indicated by what they -- you mentioned, i think she really came to understand what ronald reagan had in mind. his idea was that we have technological capabilities that were never thought of one generation ago, particularly the generations that preceded his. look at all the things that have happened there. why can't we put that same energy and good thinking, same exploration into something that would prevent nuclear war and the future? >> correct me if i am mistaken. it was also quite an aggressive move. you cannot do something like the strategic defense initiative , the research, unless you have a buoyant economy and technical
dynamism the kind the soviets could not match. >> the strong economy was one of the major strategies he had in dealing with the soviet movement. remember when he took office in 1981 we had three major problems. number one, we had the deepest economic crisis since the great depression. secondly, we had a national security threat and we had a great deal of jeopardy potentially because, on the one hand we had an increasingly aggressive soviet union. they had already captivated a good deal of eastern and central europe. they were operating there, or satellites were, in africa. we had a soviet bastion in cuba, 90 miles off our shore. we had a marxist bastion in nicaragua. it was subverting el salvador. our own hemisphere was now under attack.
it was a serious situation. that is why ronald reagan was so intent of, number one, getting a strong economy. number two, well the soviets were more aggressive, our military had declined considerably in the aftermath of the vietnam war. another important thing was to take on the military and build up the military to where we had traditionally been. during and since world war ii. finally, he believed it was necessary to engage the soviet union on a moral plane. that is why the evil empire speech and the focus of evil, that sort of thing, he felt that was important to raise those issues as it was to do the economic and military and diplomatic strategies. >> once again from your memoir, a vivid example of the reagan strategy was the liberation of poland.
reagan conducted this effort with pope john paul ii, a native of poland, who the president greatly admired. let me ask a word or two about the relationship between those men. ronald reagan is raised in a small -- we have heard his father was catholic, but his mother was a member of a small protestant denomination, the disciples of christ. although i think everyone around him understood he was a man of faith, organized religion -- he did not go to church often as president. he said it was because of the disruption of the secret service. true enough but organized religion seems not to have played a central role in his relationship with god. then ronald reagan admires and cooperates with or coordinates action with the leader of the
biggest and most organized denomination that exists. what is it in john paul the second that a protestant kid from the midwest appreciates? >> first of all, ronald reagan had a very strong faith. he had been involved in church activities as a kid. his mother was very active in her church. she made sure he was very active all the way through high school years before he went to college. he was a very active member of that church. beyond that, he was very well read. he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the bible. paul wrote about ronald reagan as he faith -- and his faith. one of the things that was pointed out, ronald reagan had more allusions to biblical verses in his speeches than all the other presidents put together. religion was an important part of his life. the reason you did not see much
about it was he never wanted anyone to think he was using his religion for political purposes or that he was showing off how religious he was. i suspect the actions of some previous presidents had something to do with his aversion in that direction. life, everyday conversation, it has been interesting within the last month to have, believe it or not, and the washington post, copies of the letter he wrote to nancy's father as he was dying to give him almost a capsule version of his religious faith, hoping it would be something dr. davis would be helped by before he passed on. >> the cymer 13, 1981, a general declared martial law in poland.
communications cut off with the outside world, arrests of 6000 members of solidarity, on and on a goes. the president and pope john paul ii meet in 1983. there is coordination of some kind. that is what i want to ask you about. >> june of 1982. >> i misspoke, june of 1982. there is a decade. solidarity regains its legal status. a democratic poland. a couple of quotations once again. richard allen, the president's first national security adviser. "this relationship between reagan and the pope was one of the great alliances of all time. -- was one ofet the great secret alliances of all time." second quotation, john paul ii's biographer. the claim that the men entered into a conspiracy is journalistic fantasy. how do you characterize what
took place between the white house and the vatican and those two men? what is the correct way for us to understand it? >> even last night there was a little bit of a dispute about what it was. it is somewhere between the two. i believe what you had here -- first of all, back to ronald reagan and his religious faith, it was that faith which made him admire the pope, particularly this pope because you had a very strong person on behalf of his faith, on behalf of his church, in the whole thing, what he had done up to that time, ronald reagan admired. admired him as a leader of his church. it was natural, i think, for him to admire that kind of leadership. beyond that, what you had was to
wo people, both leaders, one him across secular world, one in the religious world, with parallel interests. when those parallel interests were obvious as what happened in poland where they were under attack, if you will, it was logical for ronald reagan, particularly with his ideas about defeating communism, to cooperate. what you have is parallel interest. it was not some deal or as carl , bernstein wrote, it was not an alliance or treaty or anything like that. people with common interests who were cooperating. as they cooperated, they learned to trust and appreciate and like each other. >> you sat on the national security council for all eight years of the administration. let me ask a couple of questions. if i'm asking for classified
information, just slap me. >> put you in jail. [laughter] >> how many times did you believe there was a credible threat that the soviets might roll into poland? >> there was always that possibility. i don't remember it at any time particularly during the year 1981 where that appeared to be an imminent threat. the soviets always had large military forces in they always were using them to oppress or at least be a threat to a whole number of nations. the balkan countries and several others. the idea of an imminent threat i don't think was, at least, i can -- cannot remember that being talked about. >> ronald reagan taking office, the military buildup of course had barely begun by 1981. did that change the psychology?
was there some sense in which ronald reagan as president would have made the soviets think twice from the military point of view? >> in all probability, the answer is yes. >> but we don't know. >> presently in the soviet union, brezhnev was on his last legs. as ronald reagan said, when it came to whether or not he would be the soviet leader, he says, i would like to meet with them but they keep dying on me. in 1985 he got a live one in gorbachev. that was very important. because at that time, gorbachev was a diehard communist, no question, but he also understood the west better than his predecessors. therefore he realized the united , united states, certainly by the time he became general
1985, he realized the american military was going to be the most powerful military in the world and it was a force that was enough so the soviet union did not have military superiority, which they had until that time. >> one more question about the national security council. we read in this book, that book, in other articles. to my understanding, it is a kind of impressionism. i want to ask you to fill it in. bill casey with the cia is making sure solidarity -- he is working with the afl-cio to make sure solidarity gets funds, copy machines, and so forth. then judge clark and his successors as national security advisers are getting information to the vatican. they are sharing information. vernon walters, former general,
acts as a kind of a emissary. the coordination is constant. i quite a high level. there's a lot going on between the reagan white house and the john paul ii vatican. >> yes. >> all right. if you wish to elaborate, get into it. >> it was a logical follow-up to do this. to provide the ways in which without using military force we could strengthen those forces which were combating marxism and which were constantly moving towards organizing people in the various countries under the oak -- yoke of the soviet union and organizing resistance and ultimately organizing a situation where it would not be possible for the soviet union to continue, particularly with their aggression, let alone to maintain where they were at that time. it was a way in which to carry
out the strategy ronald reagan had. moral engagement, making it very clear through the diplomatic contacts with the soviet union we would not stand for any more aggression, even if it meant using military force. it is never plainly said in those words. but it is very clear we would not take more aggression such as they had in afghanistan. thirdly, we would do everything we can to roll back the previous soviet aggression. that was where the assistance information insistence, intelligence assistance, revving up radio free europe, all of those nonmilitary ways in which to provide resistance to the soviets. >> if i may, a couple of last questions. when you visited washington for president reagan's funeral, mikael gorbachev was asked if ronald reagan won the cold war. his reply was, that's not
serious. the article in the washington post continued, the changes gorbachev brought to the soviet union were undertaken not because of foreign pressure, but because russia was dying under the weight of the stalinist system. the soviet union just fell in under the weight of its own rotten system and it would have done that if ronald reagan had never been born. how do you answer that? >> just by looking at the facts. what would have happened if it had not been for ronald reagan, the united states having built up its strength and so on, the other things, the soviet union might have fallen on the weight of all of its wrongdoing, economic wrongdoing, military buildup, all that. it would have taken two, 3, 4 decades and may not have ever happened. one of the things the soviets would have done and gorbachev would have done if he followed
his predecessors, as soon as there was armed resistance or popular uprising, he would have called in the troops and put it what ronald reagan did was create a situation in which the soviets could not continue as they had either with aggression or with captivating other nations perpetually. but also the fact that gorbachev was not able to maintain the soviet primacy over these other countries perpetually. that's why i think if it were not for ronald reagan, it would have been perhaps several decades before the soviets would have fallen, or maybe never. because one of the things they would have done is utilized their force in order to get more funds, more resources and that sort of thing, they were already working on things
technologically with pipelines to improve their economic situation, which ronald reagan stopped. the economic warfare along with the information warfare was what ultimately led to their demise. the wall coming down through popular resistance in 1989 and the implosion of the soviet union in 1991. >> attorney general meese had a private meeting with pope john paul ii. i have asked you to tell us what happened on the national security council. can you let us in on what you and the pope discussed? fmr. ag meese: it was a great meeting. the opportunity to meet this great man, and everything that has been said about him is true from my standpoint. both what i know about him and also reading about him. you knew god had taken care of the church by having a leader
such as that at that point in history. the opportunity to talk with him for 15 or 20 minutes was a great privilege for me. we talked about some of the things -- again, our countries had in common. that was the morality of youth. a topic very much on his mind, something we were concerned about in the justice department. we talked about the drug problem in the united states. we also talked about how some of the catholic bishops, which you heard about last night, how there were problems with them. >> in the united states. fmr. ag meese: in the united states, doing things which were amicable to what ronald reagan was trying to do in other areas. the pope said, sometimes even bishops make mistakes. it was really a great conversation. i remember it vividly. >> did you walk out of that meeting just as lutheran as you were when you walked in? fmr. ag meese: i believe i did,
but a lutheran with a greater appreciation for the head of the catholic church. >> nobody under 30 can remember a single event we just talked about. think of your grandchildren, think of your great-grandchildren. what do they need to hold on to? can you sum up ronald reagan, what he meant to the country and the world? can you sum it up in a couple sentences? what do they need to hold onto? fmr. ag meese: the fact that what our founders of the united states had in mind as the basic principles in the foundation for their thinking, the sense of freedom, the sense of responsibility, those kinds of concepts are as important today as they were two centuries ago and will be over the next centuries in the future.
they have to know that. in order to know that, they have to know our history. history is extremely important. ronald reagan studied history minutely. he was able to incorporate the foundation and the origins of the country into almost everything he did. that is why his concern about the constitution, why he was concerned about appointing judges who would be faithful to the constitution, it was part of his being. we have to have young people understand our history, but also understand what freedom is all about and to have some idea of what happened during the cold war so they can understand why it was so important to free poland and the other captive nations. if they have a misunderstanding of history and the perspective on why that's important, the freedom of other peoples of the world, particularly to continuing freedom in this country, they will have the
background they need. it is not happening in our education systems. both at the high school, even the grammar school level, and also at the higher education level, this is the greatest challenge we have as far as providing future generations with the basic understanding they need of our history and the principles and the both moral and also patriotic foundations, which have gotten us to this point in our history and the history of the world. >> edwin meese iii, thank you. [applause] announcer: next on the presidency, a discussion about ronald reagan's cold war politics from a conference titled "ronald reagan and john paul ii: the partnership that changed the world." speakers include two former national security council staffers that served under president reagan. the white house writers group organize